Book review

Girl in Red by Gaye Hicyilmaz (2000)

This is a heart-breaking book. Not because it deals with unrequited love, though that is an element in the story, but because Frankie is so utterly let down by everyone around him, especially his own mother. Once he realizes that he cannot accept the moral values by which she lives, he is left emotionally, if not quite actually, homeless.

It all starts because some Romanian gypsies arrive at Frankie's gently rotting block of council flats in Dover. From his balcony Frankie spots a girl in red. She has long, pale plaits and is wearing bare feet and flip-flops in the winter evening. He is captivated, and in his gentle, not very incisive way, he speculates about her feelings on arriving in such an unwelcoming place:

Then I notice that she has no shoes on, just flip-flops. Fancy wearing those in all this weather: it's tipping down. My sleeves are soaked and I feel chilly, but she's bare footed, almost. I can hear the rain drumming on the tops of the cars and see it streaking across the strengthening orange glow of the sodium street lights. Doesn't she feel the cold? Or is she used to it, being foreign? If that's what she is.
Then she staggers, stumbles nearly, and something swings free. At first I think it's ropes, or some daft thing like that, around her neck. It's clear that she's a bit odd, not to be wearing her shoes on a day like this, and in that skirt, so she could have ropes round her neck, couldn't she? Now I see that it's not rope, it's her hair. It's plaits. Her pale hair is plaited into two long tails that swing down way below her waist. I've never seen anything like this before, or only on telly or in books. So much hair ...

The local residents meet the gypsies with hostility. Opposition swells, and at a public meeting Frankie is appalled to see his mother leading the protest against the gypsies:

I don't say a thing. Not a single word. I just hug the fish and chips tighter and know that I want to escape, or die, whichever is quicker. I don't want anyone to see me either, especially not Liz Quiggley and her boys. Or Mum. Or Mrs Morris. In fact, I don't want to see anyone, ever again. I hate stuff like this. I can't imagine why they made me come to this stupid meeting. Why can't people just leave me alone?

Frankie is self-effacing. It is in his nature to keep his opinions to himself, which is perhaps why his own motives are so misunderstood by those around him. It is assumed that he shares the views of his mother.

Emilia, the girl in red, joins his class at school, and Frankie is desperate to be her friend, but in his clumsy and ineffectual way he only succeeds in frightening her. He is accused of racial prejudice and ostracized by everyone at the school, children, teachers and parents alike, until, slowly and painfully, he can make his position clear.

There's a lot in this book. Themes of racial prejudice, refugees and gypsies, broken families, obsession and unrequited love, friendship, love and betrayal. And it is all worked into a deceptively simple storyline. I found it moving and memorable.

What can I read next?

Gaye Hicyilmaz has written other books. You could look at:

If you enjoy this book, Bernard Ashley has written a story about a refugee arriving in the UK:

Also, Elizabeth Laird:

You might enjoy this book by June Oldham:

Or possibly this one by Adele Geras:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

Girl in Red features in these lists: